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Virtual Colombo Plan

The Australian Government and the World Bank announced yesterday a US$750 million partnership to combat global poverty with a state-of-the-art distance education initiative.

Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, MP, and World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn, meeting in Sydney, unveiled a bold new plan to share Australian expertise with developing countries using information and communication technologies (ICTs).

The Australian Government has pledged US$100 million to what will be known as the Virtual Colombo Plan, aimed at creating opportunities to improve education and access to knowledge across the developing world for everything from primary school teacher training to advanced courses for policymakers.

The World Bank has already earmarked initial expenditures of approximately US$650 million over five years for a range of global distance learning activities that will support the new partnership with Australia and draw other developed countries into a global information-sharing network.

Wolfensohn said the Bank was working with a range of other donor governments in areas related to the delivery of the Virtual Colombo Plan, but was personally delighted that the Australian Government had committed to the scheme. "This is an initiative that all Australians can be proud of in providing new opportunities for helping to meet the poverty challenge," he noted.

Capitalizing on Australia's experience and innovation in many fields, the new plan provides a platform for Australia's world-class technology companies, research institutions and education providers to share their knowledge and skills.

"As a regional leader, Australia is in a unique position to help close the digital divide and offer affordable distance education," said Downer. "Access to education and information is crucial to the development process and this initiative will focus on providing access that is affordable and widespread.

"The choice can no longer be between meeting basic needs and adopting advanced technology. Instead, developing countries need and deserve both," Downer said.

In congratulating the Australian Government for joining forces with the World Bank, Wolfensohn stressed his belief that the work of bringing knowledge and information to developing countries "is as important as—if not more important than—capital as an engine of economic development.

"Australia is conversant with numerous languages, possesses expertise in many areas of knowledge, and boasts state-of-the-art technological ability—a compelling combination for delivering skills, education and training to a developing world where we can expect an extra two billion people in the next 25 years. This is a fantastic leadership role for Australia to take in helping to overcome the global poverty challenge."

The Virtual Colombo Plan builds on the ideals of the original Colombo Plan that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The Colombo Plan is the world's oldest program of cooperation between nations focused on economic and social development.

Australia was one of the seven founding members of the Colombo Plan that provided thousands of scholarships for students to study in Australia and facilitated much-needed technical assistance for developing countries.

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